For the first time since 1986, the United States will not be playing in the World Cup. After an embarrassing qualifying campaign — which culminated in the U.S. Men’s National Team finishing below Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras in the CONCACAF table — the Stars and Stripes faithful will be watching other teams or others sports, rather than cheering on their national team.
The Likely Consequences of the United States’s Failure to Qualify for the 2018 World Cup
The United States’s failure to qualify for the biggest tournament in the sport puts a substantial damper on efforts to increase the popularity of soccer in America, which — owing to its relatively young history in the country — continues to play catch-up to America’s other major sports, as I discuss in greater detail below. (According to a Gallup poll from January, American football remains America’s most popular sport — with 37% of adults listing it as their favorite sport, with basketball (11%) and baseball (9%) trailing behind.) Soccer, despite being more popular than ever in the States, still only registers as the most popular sport among 7% of American adults.) While soccer continues to grow in popularity, there is no doubt that World Cup participation, which serves as an opportunity to rally a nation together and to interest non-soccer fans, would have helped excite far more Americans about the beautiful game.
Unsurprisingly, the United States’s failure to qualify for this month’s World Cup has put the plans of broadcasters in a tailspin. Without America in the 32-team field, Fox Sports 1 averaged 65,000 U.S. viewers for last December’s World Cup draw, an 87% decline from the 489,000 American viewers who tuned in for the previous draw in December 2013.
As evidenced by the drop in viewing after the United States’s elimination to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, Fox Sports and Telemundo may have a tough time getting Americans to tune in to a World Cup without the U.S. team. Among the six most watched World Cup games on U.S. networks in 2014, four were United States matches. Mexico’s Round of 16 elimination and the World Cup Final were the only others that managed to crack the top six. Not only did U.S. games average 15.8 million viewers — three times the audience of other games up until America’s elimination in the Round of 16 — but for English-language audiences, 11.3 million people watched U.S. games — nearly four times more than those who watched other games through the Round of 16.
While Telemundo, whose Spanish-language broadcasting appeals to Mexican fans, will not be hit as hard by the U.S.’s absence, Fox Sports, which paid over $400 million in 2011 for English-language broadcast rights for the World Cup in America, will be feeling its adverse effects. Without the United States in the World Cup, Fox Sports will lose a sizable chunk of its audience — namely, casual fans who would only tune into the World Cup to cheer on the Stars and Stripes. According to a source close to the company, Fox Sports is projected to lose between $10 million and $20 million due to the U.S.’s absence. Another source predicted a higher loss of $50 million. Considering the fact that United States games during the 2014 World Cup comprised 20 percent of U.S. viewership, early-stage games will likely draw half the U.S. audience, according to independent media consultant Brad Adgate.
While the drawbacks of the United States’s World Cup absence will be felt by advertisers and broadcasters in the coming weeks, the repercussions of USA’s absence have already left the United States Soccer Foundation (USSF) quaking in its boots. Not only will the USSF miss out on the $12.5 million paid by FIFA for preparation and making it to the group stage, but the USSF will also miss out on gate revenue and TV rights fees from pre-World Cup friendly matches. In addition, certain clauses in sponsorship and merchandise agreements will not be triggered due to the USMNT’s failure to qualify.
Aside from the financial blows, the shock elimination caused a sea change in the USSF’s front office. Acting manager Bruce Arena resigned, and has since been replaced by interim coach Dave Sarachan. With incumbent USSF president Sunil Gulati deciding not to run for re-election, Carlos Cordeiro was elected as the USSF’s new president by a landslide in February. However, despite many seeing Cordeiro as a voice for change, others are convinced he is simply another empty suit.
The Likely Impact of North America Hosting the 2026 World Cup
The United States has already begun to find ways to make up for the financial drawbacks of its 2018 World Cup absence, and if it gets its way, it will be guaranteed a spot in the 2026 World Cup. With Canada, the United States, and Mexico preparing a joint bid for the World Cup, the U.S. will be aiming to host its first World Cup since 1994. If the bid is accepted, the U.S. would host 60 of the 80 matches, including every match from the quarterfinals to the World Cup Final.
Should the North American bid succeed, FIFA would receive over $300 million in bonuses — $182 million from FOX and $115 million from NBC. Having already lost out on the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, the United States will be doing everything it can to assure that it beats Morocco to hosting status for 2026 — a status which would come as a boon to both broadcasting networks and potential advertisers.
The Relationship between Soccer’s Popularity in the United States and World Cup Involvement
Apart from a swath of Southeast Asia, where crickets reigns supreme, soccer is the most popular sport in almost every region in the world, but in the United States, it is still only the fourth most popular sport, despite organizers’ attempts to grow its popularity.
Soccer initially got a slow start in the United States. While other nations like Germany and England grew their association football structure early on in the 20th century, the United States failed to establish a popular system until the 21st century. In 1884, the American Football Association (AFA) was formed in an attempt to standardize rules for local soccer teams in the Northeastern United States. However, due to conflicts within the organization, the AFA was suspended in 1899, and did not re-emerge until 1906. (Early soccer leagues used the term “football” in accordance with the British terminology, but common confusion between American football and English football arose as a result. In 1974, the United States Soccer Football Association dropped “football,” and became known as the United States Soccer Federation.)
The 1970s and the 1980s saw soccer’s popularity increase in the U.S., and in 1990, the United States made its first appearance in the World Cup since 1950. The sport continued to gain attention from casual fans, and the 1994 World Cup drew an average attendance of 68,991, a record that still stands today. In addition, the 1994 World Cup drew record TV audiences in the U.S. As part of the United States’s bid for the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. agreed to launch a professional outdoors league — the MLS. Many of the players who played in the MLS’s maiden campaign would go on to lead the U.S. to their best finish in the modern era — the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup.
For the MLS, the average age of viewers is 40, which is the youngest average age of viewers of all sports. And soccer is growing in popularity in the United States, and indeed is the only sport to increase in popularity.
Back in November 1989, when Trinidad & Tobago merely needed a draw to go through to the World Cup, Paul Caligiuri scored the “shot heard ‘round the world” to take America past Trinidad and into its first World Cup in four decades. In October 2017, when the United States needed a draw to go through to the World Cup, Trinidad flipped the script, exacting revenge on the U.S. with a 2-1 victory. Not all progress is linear, but it is clear that the United States missed a huge opportunity to grow soccer’s popularity in America even more.
American soccer has attempted to grow in popularity by bringing in notable foreign stars — from Pelé and Johan Cruyff in the 1970s, to Andrea Pirlo and Zlatan Ibrahimović in the 2010s. However, this has led to some drawbacks. MLS’ top earners — Sebastian Giovinco ($7.1 million), David Villa ($5.6 million) — dwarf the median MLS salary of $117,000, which in its own right pales in comparison to the median salary of other major sports leagues such as NBA, NFL or MLB. There is still a sense that MLS is a “retirement league” for excellent footballers who are past their prime and only want a hefty paycheck, thus leaving the less talented, younger American footballers to fight the odds in order to become the face of a professional team.
Despite its relatively young history in the nation, soccer is the third-most played team sport in the United States, according to the 2012 U.S. census. Soccer’s popularity in America has been increasing since the 1960s, and grew even more after the United States hosted the Men’s World Cup in 1994 and the Women’s World Cup in 1999. After the success of the 1994 World Cup, the highest-level men’s professional soccer league — MLS — was formed in 1996. After the U.S Women’s team won the Women’s World Cup on home soil in 1999, the highest-level women’s professional soccer league — the WUSA — was formed in 2001.
While America can (and does) often call itself world champions in football, baseball, and basketball, when it comes to soccer, it’s still far behind the rest of the pack. The USA currently places 24th in FIFA’s world rankings, and that ranking will surely fall as 32 other countries contend for the most prestigious trophy in football this summer.
It isn’t clear if United States soccer will get on the right track under the administration of Carlos Cordeiro, but what is clear is that they don’t want to leave it to chance anymore–for 2026, they are aiming to qualify in the boardroom in Zurich, not on the pitch in Port of Spain. After making it to seven straight World Cups, the USA have been embarrassed and slapped across the face by an old nemesis, and now, they’re back to square one.
With an increasingly soccer-crazy population, and an improving supply chain of talent, the United States are a sleeping giant in the world of football. It remains to be seen if that giant will ever be awakened, or if it will remain in a comatose state for the rest of our lifetime.
By: Zach Lowy